What is the role of the Prophet and the Quran in Islamic religious tradition, as law and society on the one hand and spirituality and mysticism on the other?
Just as there is no one “Christianity” that encapsulates all those who identify themselves as Christians, so too is there no one “Islam” that conveys a single meaning to all Muslims the world over. Both Christianity and Islam are rooted in a particular series of scriptures known in the case of the former as the Bible and in the case of the latter as the Quran. Both of those volumes convey, according to each set of beliefs, the word of God, and both provide laws or rules that are supposed to dictate to greater or lesser extents the lives of their respective adherents. In practice, however, there are numerous divisions within both Christianity and Islam. The Reformation, of course, divided Christianity between Catholicism and Protestantism, with additional faiths and sects sprouting from each of those two sides representing broad and sometimes not-so-broad distinctions between them. Islam, similarly, is divided between two major branches, with those two branches, Shi’a and Sunni, defined by centuries-old disagreements regarding the identity of the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammed. And, just as faiths and sects broke away from mainstream Christianity, so did myriad interpretations of the Quran result in offshoots of mainstream Islam.
The reason for this brief background is to illuminate the broad diversity present within the Islamic faith. The Quran is the common denominator, and all Muslims view it as the word of God as handed down to Muhammed. Within Islam, however, there are thousands of disagreements regarding the proper interpretation of Quranic scriptures. So, while all Muslims believe the Quran should be the rightful foundation upon which the laws of man are understood, there is much disagreement regarding the extent to which Quranic laws should be imposed upon believers and nonbelievers alike, with the more militant, radical elements, such as the terrorists associated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State and the militants and clerics of the Taliban, adhering to the most orthodox interpretations of the Quran, while far more liberal Muslim communities in places like Indonesia and Malaysia and around certain regions of the Middle East believe in less orthodox adherence to Islamic law, or Sharia. The establishment of an Islamic Caliphate by the Islamic State in a vast region incorporating sections of Syria and Iraq, in fact, has provided these more extreme adherents to Sharia the opportunity to put into practice their radical theological interpretations of the Quran. Similarly, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, it imposed a far more austere interpretation of Sharia upon that nation’s people than heretofore had been thought possible.
In short, while all Muslims view the Quran as the basis of legitimate law, interpretations of the Quran are sufficiently diverse so as to allow for broad applications of Sharia in countries as different as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Qatar, Morocco, and Lebanon. And, the Prophet Muhammed, being the final such prophet to receive God’s law, succeeding Moses and Jesus (both of whom are accepted by most Muslims as prophets, albeit ones whose time has passed, superseded by the provision by God of the true law to Muhammed), is considered as sacred to Muslims as Jesus Christ is to Christians. The modern day distinction, of course, lies in the degree to which many Muslims view Muhammed as every bit as sacrosanct as they view God and in the degree to which they believe any depiction of Muhammed is a serious affront to Islamic law.
With respect to spirituality and mysticism, the distinctions among Muslims remain the cause of discriminatory practices that include killing as apostates those who practice the more mystical forms of Islam. While such Muslims, Sufis, are very common throughout sub-Saharan Africa, they are much less common in the Middle East, where Sufi Muslims are the frequent victims of violent attacks despite their eminently peaceful nature. Many Muslims reject the spirituality and mysticism associated with Sufiism, but only the most militant target Sufi Muslims for wholesale slaughter. In conclusion, then, it is the most orthodox of Islamic militants who violently oppose the more spiritual and mystical branches of Islam while seeking to impose their own extreme interpretation of Islam upon all those who come under their rule.